Strauss, J Die Fledermaus (DVD)
‘Oh, what a night!’ sings everybody on stage as Prince Orlofsky’s ballroom takes leave of its earthly confines and sails for the happy isles borne on a tide of waltzes and a sea of champagne. It’s always a good moment in Die Fledermaus, and this particular night was special. Most of those present at Covent Garden had seen a few New Year’s Eves in their time, but never a one like this on December 31, 1990. And never, surely, has a prima donna been treated to such a stage party for her farewell. Dame Joan Sutherland sang that night for the last time in the house where she had made her debut in 1952. Somebody had a brainwave when they thought of this as the occasion for what might otherwise have been a rather tearful event: Joan and two of her most illustrious partners of many performances would themselves be guests at Orlofsky’s party in Act 2. Husband Richard Bonynge would conduct, so the party would be complete. The production did not have to be built round them as it existed already, a brilliant item in the house repertoire. The guests slot in nicely at the moment when the revels are at their height. And there was New Year’s Eve to celebrate.
If the plan had a drawback it was one that concerned the opera itself. Act 3 of Fledermaus is always something of an anticlimax, and, with a celebrity recital thrown in, the middle act could seem to end with chords that cried ‘Follow that!’. Happily, the production has a good move in store when, for the Finale, the backdrop for the prison scene goes up to reveal Orlofsky’s ballroom aglow and once more ready to receive its guests. As for Act 1, I should think it very probable that audiences at home will spend at least a part of it marvelling at the quality of sound and sight offered by this new DVD medium.
Without in the least dominating, the orchestra here are present with a quite remarkable immediacy and naturalness. The singers, too, are caught very faithfully. What so often has not been reflected accurately in recorded sound is the distinction between voices that are pure and those in which the purity is compromised. Here, as on that occasion in the opera house, the outstanding voices among the cast were (in respect of pure tone) those of Judith Howarth and Anthony Michaels-Moore. Among the three celebrities, gallantly as both ladies sang, it was (and is on the film) Pavarotti whose voice had retained its quality. The film also brought back what most deeply moved me at the time, which was the great beauty, refinement and, in the climax, real Italian passion of his solo, the ‘solita storia’ from L’arlesiana.
There is also plenty to watch, and with enjoyment. All on stage, including the chorus, act well, and Julia Trevelyan Oman’s sets are the kind that rejoice in inspection by the television cameras. Humphrey Burton has supervised the filming so that the home viewer has the most privileged seat of all. Still, I’m glad I was there: no after-viewing can quite catch the passing moment on such an occasion, and when, at the end, a shower of gold rained down from the dome, it might magically have been Zeus’s very own